07/24/2012 07:30 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22: The Geography of Identity

As is often the case, I got hung up on the opening. I had pulled the Torah off the shelf, settled in for a good study and got stuck on the very first verse:

"These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the wilderness, in the Aravah, near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth and Di-zahab..."

Really, I thought, a bit excessive with the place names, no? We get the point -- Moses was on the other side of the Jordan, the east side, the not-Israel side, the sad side he had to stay on because he could never enter the Promised Land. Clear enough. So why the long catalog of names? Wouldn't one or two places have sufficed? What was I missing?

Perhaps, it dawned on me, this is not so much a lesson in historical geography as an expression of emotional geography, or even spiritual geography, that is, an insight into the intimate connection between place and memory.

Places -- like smells -- conjure up, hold and fix memories.

"Where were you when Kennedy was shot? When the Challenger blew up? When the Twin Towers fell?" We ask each other these things, but even more, we tell each other these things, as if place were a witness, evidence of our being there, our being present at that event, no matter where it happened. Naming the place somehow sets the memory deep within us, authenticates our "there-ness" and becomes as much as part of the experience as the event itself.

That, I believe, is why we are treated to this catalog of places. For the creator of the text wanted to do three things: emphasize the import of the words that were to follow -- a long, last speech of the Jewish people's first national leader; offer us a frame-of-place that would forever preserve the memory, even generations after the fact; and create a sense of "there-ness" so that we would forever imagine that we were present too.

We all stood at Sinai, our tradition tells us. We utilize the language of place as much as the content of the event when we speak of that story of Revelation. Here, too, in the Aravah -- just outside the Promised Land -- we are to imagine that we were there.

Our wilderness experience after the Exodus and the time just before entering the Promised Land serve as bookends recounting our birth as a nation. The catalog of names, the intimacy of land and place are emphasized in such a way that enables us to imagine that we were there.

This is an important reminder for us highly-mobile, post-modern types. We often imagine that place is fungible; that here is essentially the same as there. The ubiquity of chain stores, common facades, the leveling work of earth-movers, the apparent ease of moving both people and commodities around the world, all contribute to a sense of here being everywhere, or nowhere in particular.

We have substituted the particularity of place for the fungibility of space. And there is some comfort there. To see a Sheraton or Starbucks "there" that looks for all the world like the Sheraton or Starbucks of "here" is to feel a bit closer to home. The world becomes a bit tamer, a bit smaller, manageable in all its vastness.

But there is a price to pay when we remake the world over in our image, when everywhere is familiar despite the miles we have travelled. To force the world into a social monoculture both destroys the world's vibrant diversity and alienates us from particularity of place.

The paradox is that the more we celebrate the distinctive look and memories and quality of "here," the more we preserve the unique varieties everywhere. And the more we feel we actually belong somewhere.

Perhaps the growing movement of eating local food, belonging to CSAs and engaging in community gardening is not only about food miles travelled or healthier food. Perhaps it is also an intuitive effort to reconnect to place. Connecting to local food as well as its sources, like the movement for local currencies and supporting local economies, may be a call to claim a sense of "home," to re-particularize place, celebrating the uniqueness of the sounds, the sights, the people, the soil, the resources, the blessings of "here."

With the increasing disappearance of family phones, and with cell phone numbers composed of area codes from homes lived in years ago, we have lost some powerful symbols of place. How better to replace them than by working in the dirt, connecting with the land, growing and sharing our own food?

Thomas Berry intuits this essential connection between self, community, belonging and memory in the way he begins "The Universe Story":

I write these words in the hill country of the northern Appalachians, at the eastern edge of the North American continent, some miles inland from the North Atlantic Ocean, during what might be considered the terminal phase of the Cenozoic period...

This is reminiscent of the way the book of Deuteronomy begins.

Knowing, noting and celebrating where we are is a first and necessary step in grounding our spirit, connecting self to community and preserving this imperiled world of ours.

So I end as I should have begun: I write these words in the Piedmont Plateau east of the Appalachian Mountains, some miles inland from the Chesapeake Bay, a stone's throw from a creek that runs into the Jones Falls waterway on the crest of Greenspring Valley, and incidentally, just houses away from where I grew up.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.